The S.S. Officer’s Armchair: Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazi
“History is not another name for the past,” wrote the historian A.J.P. Taylor. “It is the name for stories about the past.” To tell new stories about the past, historians have to actively seek them out, whether by exploring uncharted territory or traversing old ground through a different approach. On rare occasions they don’t need to go looking at all: The stories come to them, out of the blue, and in the form of a golden opportunity.
One such opportunity fell into the lap of British historian Daniel Lee. In 2011, within weeks of completing a PhD on the experiences of Jews in Vichy France, Lee swapped Oxford for Florence to begin a year of postdoctoral research. Shortly after arriving, he organized a dinner party for friends and colleagues. One of his guests introduced Lee to a young Dutch woman called Veronika who was keen to meet and pick the brains of a Second World War scholar. “I would appreciate your advice on something that has just happened to my mother,” Veronika told him.
Lee was used to people digging up, dusting down, and trying out on him hoary old war tales involving an aged relative. This story, however, turned out to be different. Veronika’s mother Jana had recently taken an armchair to be re-upholstered in Amsterdam. When she returned to pick it up, the chair restorer made it abundantly clear to her that he did not do work for Nazis or their families. To her amazement, he then handed her a pile of Swastika-covered papers he had discovered sewn inside the cushion. The man assumed Jana was the daughter of one Robert Griesinger, whose name appeared on each document. In actual fact Jana was Czech and had bought the armchair in a cheap furniture store in 1968 when she was a student in Prague. In the early 1980s she and her young family secured permission to leave Communist Czechoslovakia and settle in the Netherlands. Unable to part with a cherished memento from her student days, she brought the chair with her—containing, unbeknownst to her, Griesinger’s cache of official papers.
A week later, Lee was trawling through them. The first item was dated from 1933, the beginning of Hitler’s misrule, the last from its end in 1945. The documents were evidently important to Griesinger, for they consisted of wartime passports, certificates of war bonds, uncashed stocks and share receipts in cable companies, plus a certificate showing he passed the second stage of exams for the civil service in 1933, two years after completing his PhD in law. Lee established the bare-bones facts: Dr. Robert Arnold Griesinger was a lawyer; he was born in Stuttgart in 1906; he was sent to Nazi-occupied Prague to work as a senior civil servant in 1943.
If Jana’s story piqued Lee’s curiosity, then perusal of Griesinger’s papers fired his interest and fueled a need to learn more. He didn’t have much to go on, but he was determined to rise to the challenge. He would trace the history of the chair and, in doing so, recreate the life of Griesinger, finding out who he was, what role he played in the Third Reich, how complicit he was in the regime’s atrocities, and why he hid his personal papers the way he did.
The S.S. Officer’s Armchair: Uncovering the Hidden Life of a Nazi tells two stories in tandem. It is a captivating portrait of an “ordinary Nazi.” It is also a compelling account of Lee’s sleuthwork—or as he terms it “historical detection, with all the twists and turns, the frustrations and epiphanies, that such an investigation entails.”
That investigation gets underway in Prague. Lee’s efforts to identify the chair prove fruitless. “Every factory in Prague was churning out hundreds of chairs, just like this one,” an antique shop owner informs him. Lee has far better luck scouring the files of the Archive of the Security Services for information on Germans who lived in the city during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. On a list of “German Public Employees in Prague” Lee comes across Griesinger’s name and address and, alongside scant employment details, his title: SS Obersturmführer. At this moment Lee is forced to re-evaluate not only the nature of his hunt but also his preconception of his quarry. His interest in the armchair wanes; his sole focal point is its original owner, a man who happened to be both a run-of-the-mill civil servant and something far more significant: “a member of one of the last century’s most sinister organizations: the Schutzstaffel, or SS.”
In Berlin, where two-thirds of the one million SS members’ files were destroyed by Allied bombing, Lee harbors little hope of obtaining Griesinger’s dossier. He is therefore relieved to discover that it survived undamaged and is available for consultation. While it discloses nothing about Griesinger’s duties in the SS, it does make mention of some pertinent family connections: first, that he had ancestors born in the United States, and second, that he was the father of two daughters.
Separate visits to Zurich and northern Bavaria to talk with Jutta and her estranged younger sister, Barbara, prove limiting. Neither woman is obstructive or evasive, they simply have few memories of their father to share, as he died when they were young. When their mother remarried, all photographs or reminders of Griesinger disappeared, along with the chance to ask “difficult” questions about him. “The past was taboo,” says Jutta. “We knew not to speak about it.”
Fortunately, Lee manages to track down a relative who did remember him and isn’t afraid to delve into the past. In Stuttgart, he pays a visit to Griesinger’s nephew Jochen and his wife Irmela at their home—the same address Griesinger had lived at when he was a bachelor. “The man was a real Nazi,” Irmela announces. Through snippets of information and scattered anecdotes the faint outlines of a profile emerge: He was from upper-middle-class Protestant stock; he was a snob and a womanizer; his mother worshipped him, his father abhorred his politics, and their staff considered him “ice-cold.” During a second visit, Lee gains the couple’s confidence and they entrust him with a trove of Griesinger’s mother’s journals and hundreds of scraps of paper. These enable Lee to join dots, fill in blanks, and pursue new lines of inquiry to flesh out his subject further.
From this point on, Lee’s narrative changes gear. His readable account becomes a riveting one. We follow Griesinger’s trajectory from pampered child to unremarkable pupil to politically aware 17-year-old wholeheartedly wedded to the nationalist cause. He consolidated his nationalist beliefs as a law student at Tübingen University, then Germany’s most reactionary seat of learning. There he joined elite right-wing fraternities filled with likeminded anti-Semites and anti-Communists who detested Weimar’s “Jewish Republic” and yearned for a resurgent, militarist Germany. It wasn’t until 1933, the same year he qualified as a lawyer and began work as a junior civil servant, that Griesinger firmly nailed his political colors to the mast and signed up to join the SS. Two years later he joined the Gestapo. His transition to a fully-fledged Nazi was complete.
Or was it? Lee asserts that Griesinger’s reasons for joining these organizations were not so much ideological as opportunistic. He was an ambitious lawyer who wanted to get ahead and climb the civil service ladder. Membership of the SS and the Gestapo facilitated such career advancement. There were other perks. When Griesinger married Gisela Nottebohm (a woman his over-protective mother regarded as “the evil one”), their Stuttgart marital home was, like those of SS officers and Gestapo agents all over the country, filled with the furniture left behind by Jews forced to emigrate. This privilege was probably extended when Griesinger was transferred to the euphemistically titled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia in 1943. The Griesingers’ grand three-story villa was located in an affluent suburb of Prague that had once been home to a significant Jewish population.
The book’s gripping chapter on Griesinger’s time in Prague charts a life of ease and a reversal of fortune. It culminates in a blaze of violence, with Czech insurgents rallying the local population to kill any Germans they encounter to avenge six long years of brutal and degrading foreign occupation. Gisela and her daughters become separated from Griesinger and join millions of refugee families fleeing Allied bombings and the Soviet advance. What happened to Griesinger is less clear, as the trail goes cold during the bloody Czech reprisals. “Whereabouts unknown” was written on his police registration card on the first day of the Prague Uprising. Lee sifts various possibilities: Was Griesinger held in an internment camp, or did he make it across the border? Did he die of dysentery as Jochen and Irmela believed or was he in fact murdered? To say more about his final movements and ultimate fate would be remiss. Suffice it to say Lee propels his reader toward a denouement rich in mystery, mayhem, and high-stakes drama.
Some of Griesinger’s last act is the result of conjecture on Lee’s part. Key events aren’t so much recreated as reimagined. But here and elsewhere in the book they are persuasively offered as plausible courses of action and credible outcomes. Lee also consistently impresses with his dogged pursuit of the truth. There is no hint of half measures. The exhaustive fact-finding mission he undertakes to tell Griesinger’s whole story involves him travelling to seven different countries and analyzing numerous oral and written sources. “Where hard evidence ran out,” Lee notes, “I cast the net wider, watching him emerge in glimpses through the other characters with whom he shares these pages.”
Occasionally Lee’s narrative sags and almost buckles from the weight of his research. Certain tangents take us off the beaten track and culminate in dead ends. However, others constitute illuminating diversions. A trip to New Orleans to learn more about the birthplace of Griesinger’s father reveals that he came from a family that owned enslaved people. Southern racial hatred, Lee argues, fused with Nazi racial thought shaped Griesinger’s toxic Weltanschauung. Lee goes on to explain that Griesinger’s American heritage challenges Hitler’s warped Blut und Boden philosophy which dictated that all good Germans—specifically, all good Nazis—were able to connect to Germany’s past through their ancestors who once worked the land. An extended digression on Griesinger’s Stuttgart next-door neighbors, Fritz and Helene Rothschild, feels, initially, redundant. But as the potted history of this “racially undesirable” couple unfolds, eventually darkening as Auschwitz rears its ugly head, we come to appreciate a short yet vital tale suffused with tragedy and poignancy.
The S.S. Officer’s Armchair could have been an underwhelming story, a “hidden life” that should have stayed under wraps. Unlike Himmler, Heydrich, and many others of the so-called “war youth” generation who had been too young to fight in the First World War but old enough to be enraged by the diktat imposed on Germany after it, Griesinger was neither Nazi top brass within Hitler’s inner circle nor one of the subordinates tasked with overseeing the process of the Final Solution. Rather he was a peripheral player in the regime, an unobtrusive pen-pusher who lurked in the shadows, keeping his head down and his hands clean. “No book has ever been written on a low-ranking, regular SS officer: These Nazis have vanished from the historical record,” Lee proclaims, at once highlighting the unique place his work has within the crowded market of literature on the Nazis.
But with each successive stage of Griesinger’s life it becomes clear that he was more than just a small cog in a large machine. He might not have taken part in the more brutal aspects of the Gestapo’s work during his two and half years at its Stuttgart headquarters; nevertheless as a Schreibtischtäter, or desktop perpetrator, he facilitated clampdowns and arrests and knew exactly what went on in the torture cells beneath his workplace. He might not have joined the killing squads that roamed western Ukraine in the summer of 1941 systematically rounding up and liquidating Jews (some of them Lee’s ancestors), but as a soldier in the same Wehrmacht unit, he was in close proximity to them and no doubt knew their names. And he might not personally have worked Jews to death in the Protectorate; however, as an official at the Reich’s Ministry of Economics and Labor in Prague he was responsible for deploying Jewish forced labor throughout the Czech lands—if not to a mine or a brickyard, then to the camp-ghetto of Theresienstadt.
This important book shows us how Griesinger and tens of thousands of other seemingly insignificant administrators wielded more than enough power to shape lives and destroy them. As Lee rightly claims, “The famous fanatics and murderers could not have existed without the countless enablers who kept the government running, filed the paperwork, and lived side-by-side with potential victims of the regime in whom they instilled fear and the threat of violence.” Griesinger embodied Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil.” He did as he was told and thought little of the consequences. After the war he fell into obscurity, remaining “a nameless and faceless bureaucrat.” Thanks to this skillful salvage operation, we can now see him for who he really was.